City love songs

The story of the rebirth of goema is the story of Mac Mackenzie and the three record labels it has taken to contain his most recent offering. Healing Destination, a limited-edition release by the afribeat production team — and finally available commercially on Mountain Records — is the debut by the Goema Captains of Cape Town, Mackenzie’s crew of talented jazz and carnival musicians. It is also his first commercial release since recording the heady goema-tango-punk fusion of The Genuines, and his first release in the seven years it took him to change his primary instrument from bass to guitar.

He underwent this dramatic change so that he would no longer have to entrust his compositions to others, gems that have stewed in the romance of Cape jazz and the frenetic pace of goema — that shuffling beat heard during the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival.

Afribeat, a team of two iconoclastic music producers, had the initial faith to record the album, but only the capacity to print a limited-edition run of 100 copies. Patrick Lee-Thorpe’s Mountain Records, which has been releasing Cape Town legends such as David Kramer, Jonathan Butler and Amampondo for about 25 years, has mercifully stepped in to save the record from obscurity.

Aurally, the production aesthetic has improved immeasurably, leaving behind the Afribeat release’s me- andering flatness. What has also changed is the visual mythology told by the packaging. The Afribeat release worked with nuance and evocation: Mac was pictured, pensive with guitar and a casually held umbrella, in monochromatic blue.

A simple, white brush-stroke suggested the outline of the city’s famous mountain. The Mountain Records release is more explicit. The same picture of Mackenzie has been superimposed on a red sky, the colourful houses of the Bo-Kaap and Table Mountain, in all their pictorial splendour. The Afribeat cover sold Mackenzie as the sound of the avant-garde. The new release, its cover designed with the foreign market in mind, sells Cape Town.

The third label in this story is Dala Flet, a loose initiative by DJ and impresario André Manuel, which appeals to the cognoscenti of the street rather than the jazz target market. This label has not had any releases yet but has, more recently, hosted Mackenzie and the Goema Captains in a series of concerts that, under the banner “The Rebirth of Goema”, promises to bring the sound back to the Cape Flats.

It is a noble initiative, but subject to two corrections. Firstly, goema was born in the heart of the city, before forced removals left their legacy of dispossession and dislocation writ large against Cape Town’s urban landscape. Secondly, goema is very much alive on the Cape Flats, where it is sung every year during carnival time.

Mackenzie’s album is also about rebirth, and therefore is equally paradoxical. It is, on the one hand, a homage to a folk music, which, like folk music in many parts of the world and throughout history, has been relegated to the twilight of children’s rhymes and drinking songs. Yet Mackenzie’s “penthouse goema, red-hot goema, blue goema” is also avant-garde, in the sense of being ahead of and in opposition to the popular. How well it straddles these two zones will be reflected in whether it sells more copies here, or in Hamburg, where a record store once devoted an entire rack to Cape Town jazz, beating “Slaapstad’s” music stores to the feat.

Goema is finally being recognised as the folk music of the Cape, its roots in Khoisan circle dances, the slaves’ appropriation of their masters’ liedjies, and the use of instruments borrowed both from the Dutch East India Company and from United States minstrelsy.

It is port music in the same way that samba, salsa, gumba and jazz are. And Mackenzie “goemarises” everything in the same way that Sergio Mendes made a bossa nova of everything from the Beatles to movie theme tunes. Like bossa nova, the music is at once a beat, a feeling, and a set of well-known songs. At the moment Cape Town’s music fans believe that goema, like bossa nova, can take over the world.

The most comprehensive statement of Mackenzie’s vision remains Red Rock City, the song that opened 2002’s stunning compilation, A Moment in Cape Town. It was also recorded for Mackenzie’s self-released solo album a few years ago, Hilton Schilder’s debut album last year, and is one of the few songs to survive virtually unchanged from Afribeat’s version of the album to the current release. It is equal measures goema, jazz and tango with a dash of Parisian fantasy. “Gotta have a love song,” Mac muttered during the concert at which it was recorded — and this is his love song for the city. When originally released the Mackenzie album, it came with several intriguing multimedia clips on the CD. It is the video for the title track, Healing Destination, which is most fascinating.

Using Jessica Tibbet’s footage of District Six, shot in 1940, it is a dusty recollection of inner-city integration. Together with Mackenzie’s soundtrack, it is an overly romantic take on the past, perhaps, but it is also key to a simple equation — that the rebirth of goema represents the rebirth of Cape Town as a city with redefined ideas of urban citizenship.

It may be a sad fact of this post-modern world that we have to sell that vision to Germany before we can live it here.

The launch of Healing Destination is at Café Distrix, 104 Darling Street, Cape Town, at 8pm on May 28 and 29

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